Tag Archives: inclusion

Defining Inclusion

2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the next 12 months which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the third post in our #ADA25For25 series. The most recent post can be viewed here

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

When I conduct professional workshops and trainings for Jewish leaders seeking to become more inclusive, I typically begin by asking them to share their definition of inclusion. (There are fun & catchy ways to do this, and most recently I have been using the prompt define inclusion in three words or less.) The reason for this set-induction is two-fold: first, it focuses participants on the task at hand and second, it helps participants to recognize, up front, that there is no universal definition of inclusion.

You may be wondering why that matters. No universal definition or standard of inclusion means that individual organizations and school districts must figure out for themselves what inclusion means and how it might best be accomplished in their setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services and to participate in State and local government programs and services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. Both of these laws prohibit discrimination. Both laws describe appropriate accommodations. But neither actually defines or explains what it means to be inclusive. As a result, there is tremendous variation from state to state and district to district.

It gets even more complicated for us in the Jewish world. As private, religious institutions we are not bound by the ADA or IDEA. There are no legal mandates requiring us to make accommodations for and/or offer inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities and their families. Advocates of an inclusive Jewish world know that the inclusion of Jews of all abilities is the right, moral and just thing to do. We know that we must look past legal mandates and turn, instead, to our own Jewish teachings and sensibilities to guide us to do what is right. But without laws or specific mandates, Jewish leaders find themselves without the proper support and guidance to make inclusion a reality.

How do we start? What do we do? Must we focus on our structures or on our people? How can we seek to bring more people into our community if we can’t accommodate their needs once they are there? Why is it that some people feel inclusion means everyone all together all the time while others prefer a balance of separate and inclusive opportunities? How do we choose what is right and what is really inclusive?

Inclusion in 3 words or less

I find myself helping to guide people to an understanding of inclusion by focusing first on what inclusion is NOT. Jewish leaders can begin to make strides toward a more inclusive culture when they avoid common pitfalls and assumptions:

  • Inclusion is NOT saying that you welcome everyone – plastering it on websites and brochures – and then having meetings, programs or events where the same core group attends and sticks together while others are left outside that “inner circle.”
  • Inclusion is NOT an event or a program where you invite people with disabilities to share their experiences. (That can be a really meaningful experience for everyone, by the way – it’s just not inclusion in and of itself.)
  • Inclusion is NOT a favor you do for someone.
  • Inclusion is NOT a social action project or something your social action committee is “in charge of handling.” Inclusion, when it is part of the culture of a community, offers everyone an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of meaningful experiences.
  • Inclusion is NOT a place or a person – it’s not a classroom, a quiet room, the inclusion teacher, the inclusion specialist. Inclusion is who we are and what we do. It can’t be an after-thought or a last minute accommodation when someone with a disability “shows up.”
  • Inclusion is NOT accidentally sending the message to be thankful that you are “whole.” This is the “I’m so lucky I don’t have (fill-in-the-blank)” message. This conveys a message of pity rather than a celebration of the gifts each person has to offer.

In the end, the message is clear: inclusion matters, legal mandates or not. It is incumbent upon each organization to develop an understanding of inclusion and work toward creating a vibrant community that includes and supports everyone.


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The Inclusion Confession

As Yom Kippur approaches, we are reposting this post from last year.

Rebecca SchorrBy: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The central section of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the public confession known as the “viddui.” Originally patterned after the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, the current iteration, with its poetic catalogue of sins, is the work of our rabbinic sages, who believed that the best way to have mastery over our behaviors is to recognize, name, and internalize our wrongdoings. Only then can we hope to overcome them. Following the traditional rubric, this new viddui is meant to help us recognize, name, and internalize the many ways we continue to exclude those in our community whose abilities differ from ours.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have  sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by failing to include every member of our community.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by making it difficult for those who are different to find their places in our synagogues, schools, and organizations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for thinking that we are doing all that we can.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by building ramps without widening doorframes.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for dedicating seats for those with mobility difficulties without constructing accessible bathrooms.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for installing assisted hearing devices and allowing speakers who believe themselves to have loud voices to speak without using the sound system

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for believing we are being inclusive when we don’t truly include all.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by using words to tear down rather than build up.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by not removing words from our vocabulary that are outdated, outmoded, and unacceptable.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for standing idly by while our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers use words like “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or situation

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not speaking out when these words are  bandied about by rock stars, sports figures, and pop icons.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Courtesy of B'nai Amoona Synagogue, St. Louis

Courtesy of B’nai Amoona Synagogue, St. Louis

For the sin that we have sinned before You for judging that child’s mother rather than offering her a sympathetic glance.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by accommodating those with physical limitations while not making accommodations for those with developmental limitations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not providing support and respite for the parents and caregivers.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You turning away from those who seem different.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by putting those who seem different into categories such as “less able” and “undesirable.”

For the sin that we have sinned before You for failing to recognize a piece of You in every soul.

For ALL these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!

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Say Yes

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

We love blog posts that boast how you can “Change Your Life in 5 Easy Steps” or ones that offer us “10 Steps for Finding Happiness.” And as a regular blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make and Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive.

But I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed the advice in one of these articles. Even if I told you the exact steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow, plunk it down into your community and say, “Ok, now we are inclusive.”

Why not? Because becoming an inclusive community is a process. It is a deliberate and intentional transformation. It is a work in progress. Inclusion is a funny thing, really. When it is “done right”, it’s not something to talk about. It just is. When a community is inclusive, anyone who wants to participate can, to whatever extent he or she desires. Period. There’s no need for fanfare, no self-congratulatory pats on the back and no reason to advertise your accomplishments, because you are just a community doing what a community should do; welcoming everyone.

But inclusion, particularly inclusion of people with disabilities, is not always happening in the Jewish world; at least not naturally, comfortably and universally. And so, I will share one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I believe has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. Say yes.

Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some “get around” to yes with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that can leave everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness.

Saying yes to inclusion

When you say, “Yes, I can meet your needs…please help me to understand how to do that,” you will build trust and enable your constituents to recognize that everyone is on the same team. I am not suggesting that every request and potential accommodation can and will be met with “yes”, but by opening the door you can set the stage for honest and trusting dialogues. It means that when something truly is not possible, there can be a calm and realistic conversation.

We are well into that time in the Jewish year where congregations dust off their brochures and ramp up their advertising. There is talk of “reaching the unaffiliated” alongside plans for membership drives, promotions and open houses. In my opinion, far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive.” Too often these are just the right words to put on brochures and websites. What separates congregations who are genuinely inclusive from those who say they are is their ability to say yes and mean it. These are the communities who recognize that inclusion isn’t a committee, that inclusion isn’t a program and that inclusion isn’t a classroom in the school.

The congregations that do it right recognize that inclusion defines them, that it is part of who they are. Someday (hopefully) inclusion will just be. Until then…

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan Inc. Lisa consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

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It’s Been 24 Years

Jerry AikenBy: Jerry Aiken

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law back in 1990 to ensure that people with disabilities were not discriminated against for employment and that accommodations were made to provide physical access to facilities. As a country we have made great strides over the last 24 years, but by no means have we fully accomplished the goal. One can look at the employment of people with disabilities and identify model companies that have and are making a difference. One can look at advances in schools and progress toward more inclusive classrooms. One can look at physical access accommodations that are for the most part universally available.

All this being said, the true reality is that we as a society still have a long way to go. Every day, children with disabilities and their parents are faced with their child not being able to participate. It usually is not because a group or organization does not want to include a child with a disability. The opportunities are not there because most do not know how and are concerned that they cannot properly support or handle potential challenges. They are concerned that they will fail the expectations of the child, the parents, and others that attend their programs.

The National Inclusion Project’s mission is the inclusion of children with disabilities. Our focus is to open doors so that a child with a disability has the opportunity to participate in typical activities with their peers. With a concentration on out of school time programs, the Project has worked with community organizations around the country to help remove any concerns through training, support, and life examples of how to include children with disabilities. We do not ask nor do we want an organization to change their programs totally or create specific activities for those with disabilities. We work to help them understand that through slight modifications most children of varying abilities can be included and that the most important aspect of any program is to get to know the child. To treat each individual the same, with understanding and respect. By getting to know the child and having open communications with parents, programs will have paved the way for a successful experience.

children playing together

At JCC of Greater Washington – Camp JCC

Working with many partners over the years ranging from after-school programs, parks and recs activities, summer day camps, residential camps, etc., we see that if the opportunity is provided and the leaders allow kids to be kids, great things can be achieved. Individualism will shine as children of all abilities get involved, participate, make friends, and have fun. Certainly there are occasional bumps in the road (which happen in all inclusive and exclusive opportunities), but the long-term benefits far outweigh any temporary setback.

One of our JCC partners went from exclusive to inclusive. “In the past, the Levin JCC’s Camp Shelanu had ‘accidental inclusion’ – there were campers with disabilities who attended, but with no extra staff, no training, and no accommodations. Campers often ended up on the sidelines – in the room with their group but not really participating, or by themselves being ‘babysat’ by a staff person,” said Madeline Seltman.

“With the help of the National Inclusion Project, Camp Shelanu’s staff were all trained in the philosophy that ALL campers can succeed and make friends, and given the tools to help make that happen. One camper’s mom said that Camp Shelanu, with its supportive inclusion program, was the first time her son wanted to go back to a camp on Tuesday morning!”

The social inclusion of children will make for a much better society tomorrow. Kids participating in various recreational activities today participate in play together despite differences which will lead to better understanding and acceptance in the future. Friendships developed in a play-based environment are extending beyond the boundaries of a given program. Kids develop a sense of belonging that will become an expectation, not just on the playground or at camp but in all aspects of life. Parents will see a difference and seek to be more involved with their community.

The National Inclusion Project believes that no one should sit on the sidelines! If your organization is not inclusive or are not taking the steps to become inclusive, what are you waiting for?

Jerry Aiken is the Executive Director of the National Inclusion Project. The National Inclusion Project serves to bridge the gap that exists between young people with disabilities and the world around them.  They partner with communities and programs to teach others how to be inclusive so that kids with and without disabilities can experience lifelong benefits.  By driving the movement for social inclusion in after school programs, summer camps, and in the classroom, children of all abilities learn, play and serve together.   To learn more, enjoy this video or follow NIP on Twitter


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Memories For Everyone

This originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

JayRudermanBy: Jay Ruderman

The late nights in the bunks with friends, swimming in the lake, color war breakout that always came as a surprise and the ‘bug juice’ at lunch. Those memories for a lifetime were and are priceless for the tens of thousands of Jewish youngsters who had the privilege of attending a Jewish summer camp.

But they should be memories for everyone in our community- not just for the “privileged.”

Our foundation was proud to co-sponsor the recent Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) Leader’s Assembly. We believe that Jewish camping should be accessible to everyone and recognize the importance of Jewish camping as essential to ensuring continuity in our community.

My personal experience demonstrates this. I spent five summers at Camp Ramah in New England. Although I grew up in an observant Kosher home, I believe my time at Ramah was a critical part of instilling a connection in me to the Jewish people and to Zionism. I believe my current commitment to philanthropy in the Jewish world is partly thanks to Camp Ramah and Jewish camping.

My time at Ramah helps explain why I believe the inclusion of Jews with disabilities—at camp and everywhere else—is essential to boosting Jewish continuity.

Most Jewish philanthropists, and many Jewish communal organizations, focus heavily on keeping our children Jewish. Camping, day schools, trips to Israel, and numerous projects seek to engage our youth in wonderful experiences designed to persuade them to remain inside the Jewish community.

However, in many of these efforts to ensure continuity we chase after highly educated, upwardly mobile young people while excluding many other populations who are actively seeking a place in our community. By doing so, we arbitrarily decide who we want to stay within the walls of our community and who we want to keep out.

Chief among these excluded populations are people with disabilities and their families, who make up roughly 20% of our population. Disability is not a niche issue; it impacts everyone- family, friends, colleagues and co-workers. By being exclusive rather than inclusive, we disenfranchise many of our fellow community members, at a time when we should be inviting them in.

FJC logoIn the end, if we continue to create a society that excludes people with disabilities, we will become completely unattractive to the very young people we are trying to attract! I believe that inclusive Jewish camping can play a major role in creating a more fair and flourishing Jewish community.

Children and youth in the U.S. have already internalized inclusion. They live it every day at school, on the playground, at youth groups. To them, inclusion is the norm. This is mainly because the national culture in the U.S. has surpassed the American Jewish community in its embrace of inclusion.

If young Jews grew up with certain expectations, how will they view their own schools, synagogues and summer camps if they are exclusionary? In the end, they will turn away from a Jewish community that has no place for minorities and instead looks like an old-school country club.

Pursuing, promoting and fostering inclusion is not only the right thing to do according to Jewish values– it is also the strategically smart thing to do, so we build a community to which our youth want to belong.

There is no magic bullet that will bring us to inclusion. Inclusion needs to be a value explored and internally embraced by every single one of us! There is no replacement for the central tenet we hold dear: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh– we are responsible for each and every Jew. A sense of solidarity, the notion of oneness is what will ensure the future survival of our people.

Outsiders may provide seed funding and access to expertise, but the fundamental commitment to inclusion must come from within the community itself. Only then will it become a fully sustainable part of a newly inclusive American Jewish culture.

It is for this reason that I was excited to participate in the Leader’s Assembly. The FJC made inclusion a focus of the conference and they are working to make all Jewish camping inclusive. I commend their leadership on this issue and believe their involvement and commitment will help build a Jewish community which is exciting, vibrant, welcoming and attractive for everyone.

One of the keynote speeches was delivered by Alexis Kashar, a disability advocate, civil rights and special education lawyer who is deaf. In her address, she discussed her summer camp experience and how it helped shape her views on inclusion. She challenged the conference participants to help make the joy of Judaism available to everyone.

Summer camp is fun, relaxing and allows everyone to participate in joint activities. Now imagine that kids with disabilities had access to Jewish camps, participated and what the end result would be: other kids would see them for who they really are, kids like everyone else.

Our march to inclusion has to start somewhere. Over a cup of pink bug juice is as good a place as any.

Read our last post: Strangers Among Us
Come visit us on Facebook to learn more about inclusion of people with disabilities

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The Illusion Of Inclusion

Courtesy: Braina Melanson

Credit: Braina Melanson

By: Robert Gumson

In my 40th year working in the field of advocacy and services by and for people with disabilities, I am compelled to speak my mind about inclusion. Inclusion shouldn’t be a buzzword; it needs to be a synonym for humanity and community. It isn’t a gift or reward; it is borne out of a hard won struggle—achieved in the same way the Jews of Egypt won freedom over slavery and passed the memory of that struggle down from generation to generation so others may learn. People with disabilities represent the largest and poorest minority group in America today, with 68% out of the workforce and three times the poverty rate of others. And we remain feared by the business world and enslaved by antiquated sub-minimum wage laws that hold us prisoners to charity rather than empower us with inclusion.

In the daytime I’m the administrator for the largest independent living program of advocacy and services controlled and guided by people with disabilities in the nation. At all times of the day, I am a husband, a father and the Board President of Jewish Family Services of Northeastern New York (JFS) in Albany. Since losing my vision as a child while growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s, I have dedicated my life to living the American Dream, alongside and as part of the fabric of my community. However, as people with disabilities, no matter how typical the world around them and participatory in the world among them, we question if we are truly accepted as just another community member rather than someone special. Too many people I’ve known throughout my life believe I possess some unique strength, skill set, determination or spirituality just because I find ways of doing everything they take for granted. I know inside my own mind that I’d be just as determined and bold if I were blind or not. Sure, I probably gained some grit from rising up in adversity, but I probably learned more strategies because my parents let me grow up on the streets of Brooklyn.

Bob Gumson pictured with Ilene and Jerry Sykes (JFS Annual Celebration Honorees) and Christine Holle (JFS Executive Director). Credit: Braina Melanson

Robert Gumson pictured with Ilene and Jerry Sykes (JFS Annual Celebration Honorees) and Christine Holle (JFS Executive Director). Credit: Braina Melanson

My greatest realization that I have indeed achieved what I have strived for all my life, of being nothing more than an ordinary contributing community member, came to me over a year ago when JFS chose me as their Board President. Nobody second guessed if I could fill the role. Nobody worried about accommodating me or questioned if I could step up. If I had a need, it was left up to me to make it known. I couldn’t ask for a more fully inclusive and enlightened community to work amongst than the folks I have come to know and count on in the Capital Region of New York. Oddly enough, they do not know how I feel about all this because it is a very personal sense of fulfillment that I’m not sure translates well for anyone who hasn’t lived with a disability. Nevertheless, I want to shout it from a mountain because it is a rare moment to be accepted and included and it calls for celebration. I pray for a time in our chapter of human history when all people with disabilities are naturally integrated into society, because we have passed on the memories of how enriched our lives have become as a result.

Aside being ineligible to get a driver’s license, Bob Gumson lives a full and fascinating life since losing vision from an eye disease as a child. He has hitchhiked across America, earned a graduate degree, raised a family, been involved in disability rights, attended nearly a thousand live concerts and serves the community in a variety of volunteer positions. He writes poetry, personal essay, memoir and “fracoir”(fractured memoir).

Read our last post: Third Annual Ruderman Prize In Inclusion Announced
Come visit us on Facebook to learn more about inclusion of people with disabilities


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JDAM Roundup

Jewish Disability and Awareness Month just finished- and what a month! Programs across North America, new initiatives announced, many many posts and articles and on Twitter…over 1,000 mentions of the #JDAM14 hashtag!

Below is a list of fifteen blog posts we selected that discuss inclusion from numerous angles. They are not listed in any specific order. Please read them and spread them around. One op-ed we would encourage you to read was Jay Ruderman’s message on the URJ blog: Disability issues are issues of social justice.

Thank you to everyone who participated in JDAM and who continues to work towards a fully inclusive Jewish community!

– Ephraim

My Name is Emily and I Love to be Me
Wonderful post by 12 year old Emily Afshany on the Jewish Federation of Greater LA’s blog.  Emily discusses her learning disability and how Friendship Circle and summer camp has helped create friendships for a  lifetime.

Recognizing Invisible Disabilities
On Lisa Friedman’s blog: “Not every disability is visible. If you truly believe that your congregation doesn’t have a single member with a disability, I would venture to guess that an unwillingness to consider inclusive practices keeps those members with disabilities away. Our attitudes continue to be the greatest barrier to inclusive communities.”

The “Old Fashioned” Bar Mitzvah
Great post on the Matan blog: A daughter looks at her father’s bar mitzvah 67 years ago and wonders if today her father would receive the same opportunity.

Revealing What Others Want to Hide Away
Rabbi Paul Kipnes looks at the Torah’s portrayal of who can and who cannot perform the priestly duties in the Temple- and how to reconcile the fact that those with disabilities were disqualified.

The Holy Privilege of Resting on Shabbat
From the URJ blog: “Rest is a holy privilege, but one cannot rest if one does not have meaningful work to precede it. When people with and without disabilities are given the opportunity to work all week creating, producing, and providing, then we all can truly rest.”

After Raising a Son with Severe Autism, I have Redefined “Normal”
Elaine Hall, writing on Kveller, discusses how she has redefined the word “normal” now that she raised a child with severe autism.

A Different Look at Noah’s Ark
A different look at the classic tale of Noah and the ark to open the conversation about who is inside and who remains outside our Jewish institutions. Jews with disabilities still sit with their backs to our doors, unable to enter and engage. It is our responsibility to make sure that OUR houses of prayer ARE houses of prayer for ALL people.

JDAM logoInclusion Comes from the Top- and the Bottom and Middle
Howard Blas, writing in eJewish Philanthropy, discusses a recent Tikvah Ramah trip to Israel for young adults with disabilities- and how meaningful the trip was for everyone involved.

Making Inclusion a Reality
In this op-ed in the Washington Jewish Week, William Daroff looks at what still needs to be done in order for our society to become fully inclusive.

My Child with Autism is Going to Jewish Day School (and it’s working!)
On Kveller, a parent looks back over the last year and is thrilled to note that her child with autism is able to attend a Jewish day school.

Peeling Off the Labels
On the JCC Chicago blog: At summer camp, peel off the labels and recognize and appreciate each individual  person.

Growing Up with Parents with Disabilities
Wonderful post on the URJ blog about growing up in the 50’s and 60’s with parents who had a disability.

JDAM: Cakes and Miracles
On the Jewish Learning Venture’s blog we are reminded that each of us is different, each of us has abilities.

Is Accessibility of Public Spaces so Impossible?
Beth Steinberg of Camp Shutaf discusses Jerusalem’s lack of accessibility and wonders why public accessibility is so difficult to implement.

Rethinking Disability Simulations
Herein lies the problem with disability simulation. It may make a person more aware of another person’s experiences, but it doesn’t dig deep to the root of discrimination against people with minority identities. Instead, it’s more likely to evoke empathy or pity than true acceptance.


Filed under perceptions of disability

Revealing What Others Want To Hide Away

Rabbi KipnesBy: Rabbi Paul Kipnes

What do we do with the verses in Torah that seem to explicitly exclude people with physical disabilities? Need they be read literally, as an illustration of how we might intentionally marginalize such members of our communities?

Teaching parashat hashavua (weekly Torah portion) to a group of young people, I stumbled upon Leviticus verses which offended the sensibilities of that generation of youth raised to envision full inclusion of people with disabilities.

We read the curious prohibition in Torah which forbade kohanim (Israelite priests) with a moom (blemish) from serving in the priesthood and precluded them from approaching the altar to offer the fire-offerings.  Leviticus 21:16-23 enumerated the specific disqualifying blemishes: blindness, injured thigh, sunken nose, hands or feet of unequal length, broken arm or leg, bone deformities, hunchback, cataracts, certain skin diseases and crushed testicle.

The subsequent verses and a related Mishnah sharpened the exclusion: Such kohanim were permitted to carry out only Temple functions not involving actual service at the altar, since “they were not standing before the Eternal.” The Torah forbade a kohen (priest) who had been blemished to approach the veil (Lev. 21:23), and as a result he was forbidden during the Second Temple period not only to enter the Temple but even to step between the altar and the sanctuary (Mishnah Kelim 1:9).

My students were horrified. Weren’t we all considered “a kingdom of priests to Me, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). How could the Torah, which teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), summarily disqualify certain people who merely had some physical differences?

Credit: Brian Swann

Credit: Brian Swann

We explored some of the responses offered by some “traditionalists”: That back in Torah times, physical deformities were considered punishments from God, which sometimes reflected moral sins. That just as the Honor Guard for a king must consist of the most good looking and strong soldiers, so too the kohanim who worked in the Holy Temple had a special immaculate uniform, and physically, would need certain uniformity in appearance. That priestly behavior personified dedication, proficiency, and efficiency and similarly their perfection in physical appearance stood as a quick and constant reminder that in our service to the Holy One, we must aim for perfection as well.

These explanations did not pacify our study group. Soon, the indignant young people exploded with righteous indignation at the Torah teaching.  No one could make sense of the words.

I noticed one young person patiently raising his hand. He said this:

Nothing really can make this make sense. It just doesn’t feel right. But I wonder if there is an important lesson in here.

How many societies hide away people with disabilities, secreting them within the walls of their homes or putting them away into institutions? The Torah could have hidden these people behind the curtains in the center of the mishkan (Tabernacle), where the Israelite community could have easily pretended they did not exist.

Rather, Jewish tradition insisted that these leaders remain directly in the line of sight of the entire Israelite community, so that everyone would need to recognize and embrace the reality: that people with physical differences are people just like everyone else. Thus, the kohen was permitted to go everywhere else, into the other parts of the Temple area, and to “eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy” (Lev. 21:22).

I learned a lot that day from this young person.

That when they sat down with the rest of the kohanim to eat, the message of inclusion would be directly in the eyesight of all the people.

That God accepts everyone, including and especially people with physical (or emotional) differences, as part of am kadosh, the holy people.

And that it takes an open mind and a loving heart to see through the righteous indignation to find inclusion at the heart of our community.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami, where they have been welcoming and embracing Jews with disabilities since the congregation began. Or Ami is the synagogue home for Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults ages 18 to 88.  Rabbi Kipnes was honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers for his work with people with disabilities. He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com

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Using Dance, Music And Theater To Foster A More Inclusive Environment

Elaine HallBy: Elaine Hall

Sarah sings like an angel, but if another child joins in, she screams and retreats into a corner. Ezra draws beautiful animation, except he doesn’t want to stop putting marker to paper to connect with others.  David is sitting back in his wheelchair, head downcast, gazing wishfully at his active peers. Chava needs to move her body – all the time. Brian is embarrassed by outbursts from his brother, Jason. Kenny makes fun of kids he thinks are not as cool as he is.

How can we use music, dance, and theater to foster inclusion for these aspiring artistic and differently abled minds? Through shared creative experiences in an inclusive environment – everyone benefits.  I have had the privilege over the past twenty-five years to witness transformations in individuals with and without disabilities and their families.  How do we bring out the best in others and ourselves?

1. Focus on the ability within each individual. In Exodus 4:10, when Moses shies away from G-d’s challenge to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” G-d replies, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak; therefore, go.” G-d tells us to use what strengths we have to be a positive influence in the world. We all have strengths and challenges. Being a creative type, myself, it is easier for me to write a script for a play than it is for me to copy, collate, and ultimately find a place to file it. If I were judged for not being able to adequately manage paperwork, my self-esteem would be diminished, impacting all aspects of my life; in time, even my writing would suffer. By focusing on each person’s abilities, everyone has an opportunity to shine.

For a child like Ezra, whose drawings bring him comfort and calm, we encourage him.  We do not remove his markers to stop him from drawing; on the contrary, while he is concentrating on his drawing, we notice him and his work, and every time he glances up, we say, “Ezra, you’re participating.” One second of engagement turns into five, which turns into minutes – until one day Ezra takes part in all aspects of the class and shouts, “I’m participating!” We soon learn that in addition to his drawing gifts, Ezra has a beautiful singing voice and now engages in the entire class, performing solos in our productions. Ezra’s drawings become the covers for our show programs and for the T-shirt designs.   He takes an animation class and his later artwork becomes the inspiration of best selling author and illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld’s book “E-mergency!”

Elaine Hall post I

Danny Wolf, a Miracle Project Judaica participant with Jason Weisbrod, Miracle Project Judaica staff member, performing on stage. (courtesy: The Miracle Project)

2.  Join in their world.  Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer teaches our parent group about the Baal Shem Tov’s (founder of Hassidism)  poignant parable of the “Turkey Prince,” where the King’s son thinks he’s a turkey and hides under a table. In the story, Royal doctors cannot cure the “turkey prince,” but a sage appears and sits under the table with the prince, gently guiding him one-step at a time, patiently, without judgment, helping him to rejoin regular kingdom life. Like the king’s dilemma, traditional therapies did not work for my own son, Neal, non-verbal, withdrawn into his own world, diagnosed with severe autism. My ‘sage,’ the esteemed Dr. Stanley Greenspan OB”M guided me to enter Neal’s world. When Neal stared intensely at his hand, I stared at mine. When he screeched, I screeched. When he spun in a circle, I took his hands and spun with him, round and round for as long as he wanted, until the two of us were breathless, connecting, relishing our own unique form of “Ring Around the Rosie.” All this led to a progression of days and experiences that were magical, unique, and amazing. Bit by bit, Neal relinquished his solitary, isolated world. Gradually he merged into mine.

So, too, do we join the interests and abilities of our students.

Dr. Greenspan encouraged me to rally my creative colleagues and use these same methods to enter the worlds of other individuals with disabilities. If one of our students is too frightened to participate in class, one of our volunteers will literally hide under a table with them, until they feel confident to come out.  Suzanne was so shy when she first started classes, she stayed by the door hugging onto her mother’s leg. Our volunteer stayed beside her; never forcing her to come in the room, but rather, building a relationship with her until she felt trusting and safe to join the group.  Within a few weeks, Suzanne chose on her own to sing, dance, and act with everyone.

(Part II next week)

Elaine Hall is an internationally renowned arts educator for her starring role in the HBO Emmy Award winning documentary, Autism: The Musical. Her groundbreaking Jewish musical theater and film program, The Miracle Project Judaica, has been named by the Slingshot Guide as one of North America’s best Jewish organizations to foster inclusion.  Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon, was selected reading by The United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day 2011 and for Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month 2013. Elaine is a motivational speaker seeking to change attitudes towards Inclusion through her religious and arts education programs, and through the I Win (Inclusion from Within) programs. Elaine lives in Santa Monica, California with her inspiration, her son Neal Katz diagnosed with autism at age three, and husband,  therapist, Jeff Frymer  – as she answers the call to bring The Miracle Project Judaica to communities nationwide. Connect with Elaine on Twitter or learn more on Facebook.

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Filed under Disabilities rights, perceptions of disability

Take The Leap

Credit:  Tom Nycz

Credit: Tom Nycz

By: Dori Kirshner

I read recently about a young man with Asperger’s employed at a large, upstate New York grocery store, who was berated for the (not-fast-enough) pace at which he was checking someone out at the register.  The young man’s sister took to social media to ask people to give Chris a “shout out.” She pleaded, “If Chris has ever brightened your day, please “like” this page.”  In a matter of hours, 20,000 people responded in support of this young man.  I’m not someone who gets emotional reading Facebook posts, but reflecting on what happened in the wake of the unhappy customer’s treatment of the employee took my breath away.  Essentially, advocating for Chris did not just rest on his family’s shoulders – all who saw/read/heard about it were compelled to stand with him and his family.  It was a moment that reminded me of a sit-in, a March for social justice from the 60’s. I was proud to be part of that online community that day.

Literally, within hours of that national news story, an announcement of historic proportions was made: the various movements/streams of Judaism were banding together to attempt to move the community forward in order to increase disability inclusion in our synagogues for people of all abilities.

Press releases explained that the Hineinu Initiative, which literally means “we are here, ” will “help us make our synagogues more inclusive so that people of all abilities can say ‘I am here.’”

I read the announcement differently.  What I envisioned was (finally!) a statement that “we, the people of the Jewish community, are here.”  We cannot and should not function without all of our members.  We are not whole if we are not fully represented.  Essentially, it is not acceptable that those with disabilities or those who love people with disabilities are their only advocates.  Hineinu – we are ALL here, supporting ALL of our members. I was proud to be part of the Jewish community that day.

Education Directors participate in The Matan Institute, where they engage in hands-on learning to better understand the unique learning needs of every child. (photo credit: Tom Nycz)

Education Directors participate in The Matan Institute, where they engage in hands-on learning to better understand the unique learning needs of every child. (photo credit: Tom Nycz)

Today, I read with excitement the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, and again, I found myself getting emotional.  This effort “to place young adults with disabilities in internships and fellowships at five Federations across the country, as well as in JFNA’s Washington office,” is precisely the model that our Jewish community deserves.

At Matan, we are often asked what we consider to be the greatest barrier to inclusion in Jewish education. For years, our answer was “attitude.” The main barrier was an unwillingness among many Jewish institutions to do things differently, to think differently, to be okay with the idea that not everyone can or should be expected to learn in the same way. Through the advocacy efforts of Matan and other organizations, we can now proudly say that attitudes have changed: we now very rarely encounter Jewish leaders who truly do not want to include. The biggest barrier these days is “taking the leap” and having successful models to turn to for what community looks like when we include each member. Indeed, we can proudly stand together and see ourselves in our Jewish federations – and know that every Jewish individual is a crucial part of our whole.

Dori Frumin Kirshner is the Executive Director of Matan, a non-profit organization that advocates for Jewish children with disabilities, empowers their families, and educates Jewish leaders, teachers and communities so that all Jewish children have access to a rich and meaningful Jewish education. Follow their blog, Like Matan on Facebook or engage them on Twitter.

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Filed under Disabilities Trends